Michelangelo and His Age is an exhibition of around 70 of the most important drawings from Vienna’s Graphische Sammlung Albertina Museum, which were created during the great Florentine artist’s long and productive life (1475–1564).
A decisive influence on the development of the classical Renaissance, Michelangelo was also a crucial source of inspiration for the art of the Mannerist period, the Counter-Reformation, and the Baroque. He developed a new, anatomical drawing language that for most artists of his time, at least at certain periods, served as an important model. The ideal figure, heroic and full of power, reached its peak in Michelangelo’s fresco Battle of Cascina, some studies for which are included in this exhibition.
The work’s origin lies in the rivalry with Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari, another fresco that was to have decorated the great hall of the Palazzo della Signoria, Florence. Despite the fact that neither survives, they are the two most famous battle paintings in the history of art. Michelangelo’s anatomical study, where the musculature gives the body a highly impressive look, while expressing the unquiet inner life, energy, passion, and will of his creatures influenced da Vinci, whose famous study of St. Peter in The Last Supper at Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, is also included in this exhibition. The broad range selection of drawings shows how diverse the reactions were to Michelangelo and the influences he exercised.
Some artists followed the ideals of Raphael and da Vinci, who also had a profound impact on Michelangelo. Drawings shown here by da Vinci, Fra Bartolomeo, and Raphael document their rapid assimilation to Michelangelo’s new body language. Raphael’s entire development from the early period in Urbina, through the period spent in Florence when Michelangelo’s influence was particularly noticeable, to the great Roman works such as the frescoes in the Stanze and Loggias of the Vatican, the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria della Pace, or the Transfiguration, is captured on just twenty sheets of paper. As for Michelangelo, the exhibition includes a sketch for one of the Ignudi, or masculine nudes for his famous fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Unlike the great Florentine’s characters, Raphael’s are not powerful, solitary heroes. Instead they tend to communicate with each other, their movements are more fluid and flexible, their actions interrelate harmoniously and are always perceived in a spatial context. When Raphael began to dominate the art world in Rome, Michelangelo left the city, but his interests continued to be represented there by such artists as Baccio Bandinelli, Rosso Fiorentino, and Perino del Vaga. After Raphael’s early death in 1520, his disciples and workshop collaborators continued his legacy. The most outstanding of these, Giulio Romano, who came to Raphael’s workshop as a youth, concluded the unfinished projects and developed the Roman all’antica style. Invited to Mantua by Duke Federico II Gonzaga, Giulio Romano became a highly admired court painter and the leading architect of the Gonzaga. Although Giulio had a number of assistants, like Raphael before him, he executed the sketches for each detail himself, something that is clear from the group of sketches for the decoration of the Palazzo Te. During the 1520s, after studying Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina and working in Raphael’s workshop, artists like Perino del Vaga fused stylistic elements of both masters. The same is true of Correggio and Parmigianino from northern Italy, who, while absorbing the monumental nature of Michelangelo’s vision and the grace of Raphael, went on to combine both elements with the powerful emotion characteristic of their work. Parmigianino concentrated intensely on studying the work of Raphael in Rome, and his contemporaries began to see him as a reincarnation of the great man. One characteristic feature of the stylistic developments of the 1530s was the adoption of the motifs in full movement of Michelangelo and Raphael, and the intensification of their grace and wit to produce something increasingly elegant and decorative in tone. This transition from the classical Renaissance to Mannerism is captured in works by Rosso Fiorentino, Perino del Vaga, Domenico Beccafumi, Francesco Salviati and Giorgio Vasari. Progress in the portrait followed from a fascinating approach to the live model and a tendency to idealize and highlight a few essential features. Although the portrait of a young, distant-looking Gonzaga by Francesco Bonsignori is still rooted in the visual style of Andrea Mantegna, Bartolomeo Veneto’s portrait of an unknown nobleman directs our attention to the optical values, to the pictorial effect of the embroidered shirt, the patterned coat, and the sunlit hair. In the tradition of da Vinci, Benardino Luini shrouds the face of the woman in his portrait in a da Vinci-style sfumato that surrounds her skin like mist, giving her a diaphanous air. Like Florentine painter Andrea del Sarto, Luini uses colored chalks to achieve the slight flush of the face that infuses her with life and freshness. Del Sarto, however, tends to look for a more sculpture-like geometrization and hardening of his forms, as evidenced by the portrait attributed to him of a noblewoman.
Michelangelo’s style in the 1530s is evident in the drawings dealing with the death of Christ, a theme to which, from the La Pietà in St. Peter’s, Michelangelo returned again and again. Lamentation Before the Dead Christ is full of characters, the act of bringing down Christ’s body from the Cross being expressed by the supporting figures, both standing and kneeling, and the curvature of the dead body. The other drawing in red chalk strikes a marvelous contrast between the heavy forms and rough lines of the figures in the background and the Savior’s body, clean of wounds and in a posture reminiscent of sleep that confers it with an almost supernatural beauty. The death of Christ was the only theme that provided the artist with the possibility of representing man free of internal tensions, desperation, and pain.
All efforts made to entice Michelangelo to France, in the footsteps of other artists of his time, were wasted. His fame as a sculptor grew thanks to his colossal Hercules in marble, now lost, and the two slaves for the tomb of Julius II, which Roberto Strozzi sent to France. Antonio Mini traveled to France in 1531 with two coffers full of drawings by Michelangelo that the master had gifted him, providing valuable study material for artists like Francesco Primaticcio. Michelangelo may possibly have acted as mediator for his friend Rosso Fiorentino when he went to France in 1530 and served as a court painter in Paris and Fontainebleau, working on the decoration of the palace with a large group of artists under his direction. With Primaticcio, who was later helped by Niccolò dell’Abate, Fiorentino is considered the founder of the School of Fontainebleau. It was these artists who helped to spread Michelangelo’s stylistic practices throughout France.
When he finished the frescoes of the Paulina Chapel (1550), Michelangelo abandoned painting and turned to architecture and sculpture. Even so, he still produced sketches for his friends Daniele da Volterra, Ascanio Condivi, and Marcello Venusti, who used them to perpetuate Michelangelo’s ideas in their paintings. Daniele’s drawing of Aeneas with a Boy for a painting now lost is a development of a sketch Michelangelo had executed in the mid-1550s. The drawing admirably captures Michelangelo’s late style, where figures are developed from compact, massive forms whose movements seem brusque and simplified.
Through this selection of masterworks from the Albertina, the exhibition reviews the whole range of techniques and functions used in drawing, while documenting the wealth of materials whose use achieved a peak of precision and variety at this time. The potential of the engraving was also greatly enhanced, particularly by the etching and chiaroscuro woodcut techniques recently introduced in Italy, as evinced by Marcantonio Raimondi, Parmigianino, and Ugo da Carpi’s famed prints.